'When it comes to politics, teachers' number one responsibility is to nurture freedom of thought'

3rd June 2017 at 12:01
Many school leaders and teachers conflate politicising children with educating them. We need teachers who are able to relinquish their personal views and demonstrate a bit of realpolitik, says one educational consultant

The election cauldron has brought a lot of activity and advice bubbling to the         surface, about how schools should handle children and politics.

Amid the toad entrails and bats’ wings bobbing about, I’ve spotted the odd piece of tasty-looking chicken, but when my youngest daughter came home from school recently and told me all about their mock election, she offered something really appetising.

It wasn’t the election or the speeches pupils made which she was energised about, funny and entertaining though they clearly were, it was the lengthy conversation she had with a group of girls afterwards, in private, which she spoke about so fondly and enthusiastically.

No one bickered, no one resorted to dogma or emotion, and, crucially, no one took offence.

Yet she found what they had to say fascinating and even exciting. It was “a really good day” at school.

It was also one of those experiences many teachers reading this may connect with their own teenage, or student, years. When, unshackled by preconception, prejudice or predisposition, they listened and shared ideas freely, respectfully and with unadulterated, academic delight.

I recognised exactly what she was describing because it’s the only thing I’ve missed since I gave up classroom teaching for other educational employment, almost two decades ago.

For those of you considering abandoning the profession for the delights of a business career, let me assure you of one thing, no one ever wastes time talking about anything interesting.

In almost 20 years, in spite of working with many delightful, well-educated people, I have never, not once, had a provocatively stimulating conversation during working hours of the kind I enjoyed every day at the genuinely world-class school I taught at for a decade.

The kind of conversation my youngest daughter came home fired up about is part and parcel of learning and teaching in any genuinely world-class school.

CEOs of multi-academy trusts and leaders of the hundreds of academies created by government policy in recent years would do well to revisit the etymology of the word, although if you had sufficient etymological awareness to find yourself smiling at unadulterated a little earlier, you probably don’t need to.

'Keep your political views locked away'

Teachers’ approach to politics falls into three broad categories.

There are many teachers who conflate politicising children with educating them. I think this originates at university, where the idea that your subject specialism is merely a means to an overtly political end is commonplace.

Politics is a legitimate object of study in its own right and there are plenty of allied subjects that exert the same attraction for some people.

However, you don’t just find the manipulative, charismatic academic who is able to energise and mobilise a little troop of acolytes, in fiction and film. Anyone who attended a real-life university is likely to have encountered one or two. 

Secondly, there are many schoolteachers who, like their university counterparts, have decided consciously and deliberately to use teaching as the ideal way to implement their personal politics.

The difference is that in schools, they tend to quickly become leaders of various kinds and they are especially visible in the layers of management outside schools and inside that host of organisations and bodies who seek to influence schools and educational policy.

In a toss-up between enabling and developing those they teach and their own careers, there’s little point calling tails.

Lots of experienced teachers will have witnessed heads faced with making a decision between supporting a pupil or advancing their own career, who barely blink before choosing the latter.

Finally, there are teachers who do everything in their power to encourage children to think for themselves and who, therefore, scrupulously avoid any possible expression of their own political thinking.

They believe their job is to nurture thought, the pursuit of knowledge and creativity in others.

They have the intellectual agility to adopt any political or ideological stance at will, to present the children they teach with a wide range of third-party views, without ever revealing their privately held opinions or politics. Crucially, they know that to do so actually makes it impossible for them to nurture freedom of thought.

From where I stand, having visited many hundreds of schools here and abroad, far too many elbows have been slyly leaning on one side of the scales in the UK for decades and the key reason we are still trying to develop a world-class education system is because of the detrimental weighting that favours those first two approaches. 

The more teachers who recognise the profession’s greater social responsibilities, who are able to relinquish their personal views and demonstrate a bit of realpolitik by locking real politics firmly and pragmatically in the cupboard at the back of the classroom, the better.

A “really good day” at school should be a right: not a privilege.

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author

To read more columns by Joe, view his back catalogue

For all the latest news, views and analysis in the run up to polling day, visit our general election 2017 hub

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